Thursday, February 12, 2015

Treadle Fever

One of the mainstays of our farm philosophy has been the idea that all animals belong outdoors on pasture.

This means real access to the outdoors and pasture whenever possible.

Many of the claims by industrial farms that their animals have access to the out-of-doors refers to a small doorway at one end of a huge poultry barn (as an example) where chickens can 'freely' access a woefully inadequate (small) outdoor area.

And things can get MUCH worse!

For our poultry, this was best accomplished through our use of chicken tractors out on pasture. (See previous postings on our construction of one of our tractors).

Now there are times that this can go completely sideways and turn into a muddy mess or snow too-deep for the chickens to navigate, but as a whole, it works quite well and the chickens seem to really love the fresh air and dirt to scratch and explore.

One of the downsides however has been our wild bird population.

Slowly, the wild birds (starlings in particular) have discovered that they too can enjoy the bountiful buffet that is our chicken feeders.

Given that feed costs are the farm's #1 expense, we realized that something must be done - ASAP!

After some online research, we settled on the idea of using treadle feeders.

The name comes from idea of a treadle, much like the pedal on a sewing machine, that when depressed by the weight of a large bird (like say a chicken), lifts the cover over a feed tray and VOILA! : the chickens can access their food.

When the starlings show up, they get NUTHIN!

After researching online for a commercial product and networking with some other small producers who have trialed some of those commercial products available, we settled on building our own. (The farms we talked to that had tried the metal treadle feeders said they were cheaply made and not suitable for a small scale but commercial use).

I was able to find a couple of sources for building our own feeders and set about building a prototype and this was definitely my favorite:

(Thanks to Mr. del Cielo for his wonderful article on building a treadle feeder)

When you're looking to build up to 40 or more of these feeders, you want to get all the kinks out of the system. (Also, we have found that some things that have been useful for other farmers on their properties, have just failed miserably when put into use on our own).

A couple of changes we made on Mr. del Cio's model:

1. We're using 1/2 plywood for the side walls and feed cover, and 1 inch heavy rough sawn oak for the treadle. The extra weight seems to help with the ease of opening and we've gotten our weight-needed-to-open-the-feed-cover down to less than 2 lbs.

2. We opted to use a stronger steel bold for our primary and secondary hinge pins with washers. 

The washers help displace the side arms away from the side walls of the feeder and decrease the chances that they will get stuck rubbing against those side walls if the whole unit gets torqued.

3. Locking nuts. We combined these with our hex bolts to control how tight these hinges would be.

4. We invested in some steel screw posts for the small hinges. The aluminum posts just didn't seem sturdy enough to last. We were able to find these steel posts online for about $35 per 100.

Here are some images of our protoype being built to give you a sense of how it looked:

We intentionally left the side arms long until I could figure out the optimal location for each pivot point to optimize function.

you can see there were a number of adjustments made to find the best location for each hole. 

The prototype allows me to leave this in the hands of our interns to work on when I'm not there. 

I'm not always the best about writing down measurements and so there's a lot in my head that never gets written down.

That's a 1.9 # hammer on the treadle.

We added a 1/2 inch lip on the bottom and side edges of the feed tray to help with billing of feed out of the feeder. 

We initially started with a 4 inch front wall for the feeder, but that seemed too deep and I reduced to 3 1/2 inches.  I was worried that the fresh feed would continuously cover the feed on the bottom and it would spoil. (One thing we've found to be important is to allow the chickens to periodically finish the feed in their feeders and really clean them out).

I have also kept the feed opening fairly narrow,  again to help with feed wastage.

More to follow on how they hold up to daily use by our 1000 birds!